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Finding Their ‘Vox’

English-Language Learning Platform Expands Availability on Campus

By Sala Levin ’10

Speech bubbles with different languages

Illustration by iStock

English language learners at UMD now have access to a virtual tool to help them through the COVID-19 crisis, through the expansion of a pilot partnership with the personalized English-language learning company Voxy. Now, up to 1,000 members of the UMD community can access Voxy for free via computer or app to bolster their English skills.

When the COVID pandemic struck, launching an avalanche of questions about health risks, jobs and schooling, non-native English speakers faced a major disadvantage: With the abrupt end of in-person classes, they had to navigate this new terrain in a vocabulary not their own.

At the University of Maryland, English language learners now have access to a virtual tool to help them through the crisis, through the expansion of a pilot partnership with the personalized English-language learning company Voxy. Now, up to 1,000 members of the UMD community can access Voxy for free via computer or app to bolster their English skills.

“We’ve been moving extremely quickly to get licenses into the hands of people who can use it,” said Mariah Bauer, director of strategic initiatives and deputy director of the university’s Administrative Modernization Program (AMP), which has launched the Voxy community tool.

Using what Katie Nielson Ph.D. ’12, chief education officer at Voxy, called a “task-based approach,” the product, which 4 million people in 150 countries have used over the past decade, aims to empower learners to improve their English skills in areas most relevant to their daily lives. Users select from topics ranging from cover letters and resumes to academic writing to financial planning, take online lessons in their chosen area, and are then tested on their listening, speaking, reading and writing skills.

Hana Getachew Tadese, a housekeeper from Ethiopia whose first language is Amharic, pointed to the platform’s convenience. “It’s easy to use while I’m on transport,” she said. Her speaking and comprehension have improved, she said, but “more than that, it gives me more knowledge about different topics.”

For essential staff like housekeepers, who need to be able to communicate about issues like cleaning protocol, COVID brought a whole new set of challenges. In the past, staff members who needed an English boost would go to in-person classes. “The COVID crisis is pushing everybody to do everything remotely—that raises questions of equity and access for non-native speakers,” said Nielson.

Giving staff members time during work hours to access Voxy on their phones has resulted in “real change,” said Bauer.

Though a few hundred people have used Voxy at Maryland since the pilot programs launched in 2016, the COVID pandemic represents “the first time Voxy will have been used across an entire institution and all of its populations”—including faculty, staff and students, said Bauer. The University of Maryland, Baltimore is also in the process of making Voxy available to its community.

For Nielson, the reward is personal. “I’m very happy that the platform I built with expertise I got at UMD” is now helping Terps expand their ability to communicate, she said.

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Office of the Provost

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